Returning to the themes of voyeurism and intervention in other people’s lives that he explored with penetrating intensity in 1995’s “Postman” — arguably still his best film — mainland Chinese director He Jianjun continues to show more stylistic affinity with European filmmakers like Kieslowski and Antonioni than with his compatriots in his fourth feature, “Butterfly Smile.” Structured as an enigmatic puzzle, this elegantly made, doleful drama is too attenuated for general arthouse acceptance. But its quiet, hypnotic qualities and intriguing characters should ensure further festival bookings. Given more linear treatment, the story has distinct remake possibilities.
Driving home on a winter night, fashion model Meng Xing (Jiang Weiwei) hits a cyclist on a deserted backstreet, causing her to panic and bolt, leaving the gravely injured man out cold on the pavement. A lonely middle-aged computer salesman, Kang Ping (Ge You), witnesses the accident and takes the cyclist to hospital, disappearing before a police report can be filed.
Action then shifts back in time, revealing Kang Ping to be an amateur photographer obsessed with the model. After photographing her at a fashion show, he traces her to an agency run by Lei Ming (Sun Chun), who fails to disclose that he’s Meng Xing’s husband. Feeling his wife is growing apart from him, Lei Ming enlists Kang Ping to photograph her unseen from an apartment opposite the workshop where she designs clothes.
When he witnesses the hit-and-run accident, which resuscitates painful memories from his own past, Kang Ping begins indirectly communicating with Meng Xing. He attempts to make her accept responsibility for her actions, at the same time being wanted by police himself for questioning in connection with the accident.
While director He’s approach is too unhurried to exploit the psychological-thriller aspect inherent in the story, the austere drama remains moody and compelling, accompanied by a melodic score that at times eases into quietly suspenseful mode. Despite being photographed mainly in closeup or mid-shots, the visual style is cool, detached and distant, effectively mirroring the way in which Kang Ping spies on his subject. Best known for his roles in Chen Kaige’s “Farewell, My Concubine” and Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” Ge provides a strong, sorrowful center to the drama, with both leads keeping emotions under strict control.